Every country competing at the London Olympic Games will include female athletes for the first time in history after Saudi Arabia agreed on Thursday to send two women to compete in judo and athletics.
The move by the ultraconservative Muslim kingdom to break with its practice of fielding male-only teams followed earlier decisions by Qatar and Brunei to send women athletes to the Olympics for the first time.
“With Saudi Arabian female athletes now joining their fellow female competitors from Qatar and Brunei, it means that by London 2012 every national Olympic committee will have sent women to the Olympic Games,” International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge said.
Saudi Arabia had been under intense pressure from the IOC and human-rights groups to include female athletes. Thursday’s announcement followed months of IOC negotiations with the Saudis to bring women to London.
The two female Saudi competitors are Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani in judo and 800m runner Sarah Attar.
“A big inspiration for participating in the Olympic Games is being one of the first women for Saudi Arabia to be going,” the 17-year-old Attar said in an IOC video from her US training base in San Diego, California. “It’s such a huge honor and I hope that it can really make some big strides for women over there, to get more involved in sport.”
Attar, who has spent most of her life outside of Saudi Arabia, said she hopes her inclusion would encourage women in the conservative kingdom that does not even allow women to drive to participate in sports.
“To any woman who wants to participate, I say: ‘go for it,’ and don’t let anybody hold you back,” Attar said in the video after running a lap on the track wearing pants and a headscarf.
“We all have potential to get out there and get moving,” she said, speaking in an American accent.
Women in Saudi Arabia bear the brunt of their nation’s deeply conservative values. They are often the target of the unwanted attention of the kingdom’s intrusive religious police, who enforce a rigid interpretation of Islamic law.
There are no written laws that prohibit women from participating in sports, but women are not allowed into stadiums and they cannot rent athletic venues. There is no physical education for girls in public schools and no women-only hours at swimming pools.
Women cannot register for sports clubs, league competitions and other female-only tournaments with the government. They are banned from entering all-male national trials, which makes it impossible for them to qualify for international competitions, including the Olympics.
Attar and Shahrkhani were entered for the London Games by the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee by Monday’s deadline. Neither qualified to compete in the Olympics, but they received special invitations from the IOC “based on the quality of the athletes,” Rogge said.
“We’ve looked at the ones who are the closest to qualifying standards and these were the two athletes,” he said. “That’s always the bottom line in all these invitations.”
Rights groups hailed the decision as a step forward for Saudi women in their quest for basic rights, but emphasized that the fundamental problem in the Gulf country — the legal gender segregation — remains firmly in place.
“The participation of two Saudi women in London is an important breakthrough, but will not hide the fact that millions of Saudi girls are effectively banned from sports in schools in Saudi Arabia,” Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch said. “Now is the time for the International Olympic Committee to use its leverage and lay down achievable conditions to jump-start sport in the kingdom.”